Hugh had no intention of being hounded into a duel by her enraged fiancé should he be tempted to take up the offer in her saucy gaze. In Hugh’s opinion young ladies should be taught about the dangers of coquetry along with their music and French lessons. He dearly wished his sister had had such schooling, saving him the cost of rescuing her reputation.
Hugh knew that his roving eye was being jaundiced by the memory of Beatrice. Frustratingly, he found that her honeyed taste and fragrance were always infiltrating his mind, overriding his desire for other women. His mistresses had enthusiastically welcomed him back to town when he’d returned from the dowager’s funeral, yet even with Gwen’s sinuous body writhing beneath his he hadn’t been able to banish Beatrice’s image from the backs of his eyelids. He wanted her and he wasn’t about to give up after one setback...or a hundred...he reminded himself with savage humour.
Bea was likely to be a virgin, and he could no longer deny that acknowledging her inexperience made him a first-rate hypocrite. His long-held beliefs that untried spinsters weren’t fair game for artful seducers like him had so far been pushed back in his mind where she was concerned.
That morning by the stream, when he’d offered her carte blanche, it had suited him to think her Burnett’s mistress. He despised men who took advantage of chaste women...yet he was tempted to do exactly that with Beatrice. He was in danger of losing his best friend and his own self-respect, yet still a gnawing obsession to possess the only woman he had ever loved pervaded his being...
A few moments ago Hugh had been tempted to drag Bea to his side, and then out of the house, when he’d seen her approach Burnett. Within minutes of observing the meeting he had felt admiration and respect for her salve the jealousy knifing his side. He’d realised that rather than wanting to irritate her rival, or win back the doctor, she’d hoped to put an end to the speculation that she was bitter over her fiancé’s defection. The trouble was Hugh couldn’t be absolutely certain that Bea wasn’t acting aloof with Burnett just for her audience. If the love she’d felt for the doctor were rekindled she might succumb to an offer of informal protection before Hugh could win her for himself...
‘Are you not going to join the gentlemen having a smoke on the terrace?’ Fiona had seen Hugh standing quite alone, watching a game of Faro, while Miss Rawlings prowled very obviously in his vicinity.
Sensing he was about to go, Stella quickly moved so close to Hugh that he felt a movement of air on his profile caused by her fluttering fan.
‘Considering she is spoken for, I don’t know what game Miss Rawlings thinks she’s playing.’ Fiona gave the redhead a glare as she steered Hugh away. ‘The shameless baggage was most definitely flirting with you and needs to be taught a lesson in propriety.’
‘I didn’t notice,’ Hugh lied glibly. He saw no sense in stirring up trouble; he was determined to leave and visit Gwen, so she could attempt to soothe his restlessness.
‘A hand of cards, Hugh?’ Jago suggested, having returned from the terrace.
‘I’m leaving in a moment...’
‘Oh, do stay for a while yet,’ Verity bubbled. ‘Never mind tedious gaming, the rug is being pulled back and soon there will be dancing.’
On a raised dais a few musicians were tuning up and, in front of it, two footmen were rolling back an Aubusson carpet to reveal the polished wood beneath.
‘You’re likely to frighten him off even sooner with such talk.’ Fiona consolingly patted Hugh’s sleeve. ‘Never fear, I will protect you from being frogmarched into a quadrille.’
Fiona liked Hugh, despite the fact he’d once made an effort to woo her and been gently rebuffed. She’d known all along that he’d approached her on the rebound. He had still been in love with Beatrice and would have returned to his first choice in an instant if he had managed to raise the money to enable him to propose.
Hugh gazed again in Bea’s direction, feeling a frustrated desire to stride over and take her somewhere quiet and secluded. The hope of talking privately to her had brought him here in the first place, although it wasn’t fair to run the risk of embarrassing not only her but also her aunt and their mutual friends. He cursed beneath his breath, acknowledging the insanity in his behaviour; he should have avoided this genteel party and attended one of his usual haunts. There would have been a better time to approach her again... The trouble was he was too impatient to wait for it to crop up...
Having said goodbye to his friends, Hugh had nearly reached the exit when Colin Burnett appeared in front of him, blocking his path.